Online Harms White Paper - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:41 pm on 30th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Labour 7:41 pm, 30th April 2019

My Lords, I rarely speak on DCMS issues. I talk about them when they have been taken away from that department and pushed down the line to the Home Office or the health department. I am thinking here of how the licensing legislation for drinking started in DCMS. It ended up with the Home Office and effectively the major interest in the issue now is with health. It is the same with gambling, where again we started with DCMS. I forecast that this major document and the legislation that is to follow it will not stay primarily with DCMS but will go to the Home Office, where the security issues have to be dealt with, but much of it will end up with the health department. Here I am pleased to be following the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, because the areas he has touched on are those in which I have a particular interest. I have gone from drink, drugs, sugar, diabetes and obesity to what people are doing about obesity in children and the failure of parents to watch what their children are doing, including the time that they are spending on the internet, particularly on gaming, and the effect that this is having on family life and so on.

I picked up on the issue of opioids on page 16, while on page 20 mention is made of the report of the UK Chief Medical Officers which looks at the problems that will arise in the future. At the moment the prospective Bill will not look at them. A real challenge is the emergence of the problem of excessive screen time. Children are spending an average of 15 hours a week playing games. Pages 26 and 27 deal with addiction, which was picked up on by the noble Viscount. I am worried that we do not have enough about health in this document. If it is not in there now, it will most definitely come along further down the line.

I welcome the White Paper overall because it pulls together many areas where we have had concerns for quite some time. I welcome the statutory duty of care, but it is a pity that that has been taken from the health and safety regulation. Health has thus been denied its inclusion, and I suggest to the Minister that when we come to rewrite the title we do not just talk about online harms but add a colon and the word “safety” and a tag behind it saying “health”. I think that health will have to be looked at in that context. A new title would be better because we should try to make it look a bit more positive than it does at the moment.

We also have to look for ways in which we can engage better not with the smaller companies in the industry but with the big ones. We should differentiate between the big international monopolistic players and the smaller companies that are trying to make their way and grow. It should not quite be a blunderbuss right across the board; we should split these companies into two categories. We are dealing here with people who have big money and great power.

Referring to the appearance of the noble Baroness, Lady Blackwood, before us earlier, we can see that the Department of Health and Social Care has seized the initiative on organising meetings. The Government will need to have someone who is clearly in charge. I am not sure from which department they will come, but someone has got to be ultimately responsible for dealing with the major companies on an international basis as well as domestically within the UK.

It is good to see that we have the statutory duty of care and that we will use technology as part of the solution. It is good too that the funding for this will, it is hoped, come from the industry. I suggest that we need much more funding than just to cover the regulator. We ought to have a look at what happened when the National Lottery was introduced. By and large it has not been criticised as much as gambling in general over recent years. The National Lottery is acceptable because some of the money raised by the lottery goes back into society. We need to engage with the major players not just about harms but about how we can move them towards taking a positive approach. Perhaps we should be looking at them not just to pay for regulation but to create something like the kinds of additional funds that from the 1990s onwards have been generated and then spent on, for example, heritage projects. That money from the major players should be used to pay for research and to encourage them to explore those areas where technology can be used positively as well as negatively.

My interest in this issue is based on friends with children who are totally addicted to gaming. The problem is quite widespread and is growing, and it needs to be seriously addressed. If you can get children addicted to gaming, why are we not looking at whether gaming can be used as a means to attract the attention of children who perhaps have mental health problems or physical problems with obesity and so on? We should try to develop positive games that encourage them to care for themselves rather than simply persuading them to buy the next game, which is what so many of the gaming exercises are about at the moment: making money. There is an opportunity to engage with the major players and try to move them in that direction. They could still make money but they would be doing so on something that is worth while for the populace generally, and in particular for the welfare of our children in the future.

I am working with a group of people in a television company to try to do this. We have identified many of the games currently being played which are good, but they are in the minority. I have tabled a Question for a couple of weeks’ time asking the Government what they are doing in terms of research into gaming on the positive side rather than the negative one. I hope that the Minister, who is going to be answering that Question, is prepared to come up with some positive responses. Money needs to go into this and if the Government will not fund it, we certainly ought to be going to the private sector, perhaps in conjunction or in partnership with the Government. We could then develop a positive approach to the good elements of technology rather than spending all our time talking about the negative ones.

I am unhappy about the absence of the health elements, which I believe will come in due course, without question, as night follows day. We should be preparing for that, and perhaps the Minister might reflect on whether a little more should be included on the problems coming on the health side. They would then already be there and, even if not addressed in the Bill that comes, would at least have been laid down to be reviewed and worked on in the future.

I hope the Minister might look also at the possibility that more money is taken on a persuasive basis from the big players, so that we do not just cover the cost of the regulator but start to invest in research in those areas where games, for example, could be used positively for the benefit of children, rather than negatively.